January 27, 2005
Afraid to Face God?
Parshat Yitro (Exodus 18:1-20:23)
Many Jews who live their lives in a traditional Jewish way will often punctuate their remarks with the term, "Baruch Hashem,"
which means "Blessed be Hashem." The words are used as a response to so many situations, both good and bad. It is a way of recognizing that the power and presence of God is manifest in all moments of the human experience.
To be able to comprehend the true feelings behind the words one has to listen closely to the inflection in the speaker's voice. If the words are said with exuberance, one can assume that the person is thanking God for something wonderful. If, however, the tone is subdued, the words function as a quiet plea to God to intercede on someone's behalf. In either case, the speaker is a Jew who sees the hand of God at work in his or her life and who is comfortable with "God talk."
I think that over the past century most American Jews, in their efforts to become absorbed into American society, have distanced themselves from overt expressions of Jewishness and Jewish piety. People stopped referring to God routinely in daily speech. Furthermore, as modern intellectualism overwhelmed religious ideology, we Jews distanced ourselves from God. The absence of God from our words reflected the absence of God from our lives. As we shall see, this was not the first time that a large group of Jews distanced itself from God.
In Yitro, we read an account of the giving of the Ten Commandments. Because of a lack of clarity in the text, over the centuries commentators on the Torah have been divided as to whether or not God spoke all the Ten Commandments to the people.
The matter is complicated by the fact that the Torah actually presents two versions of what happened. After the proclamation of the Ten Commandments, we read: "All the people witnessed the thunder and lightning, the blare of the horn and the mountain smoking; and when the people saw it, they fell back and stood at a distance. 'You speak to us,' they said to Moses, 'and we will obey; but let not God speak to us, lest we die (Exodus 20:15-16).'"
This suggests that the people's fear of God's power peaked after God's recitation of the Commandments. Having heard all that they heard and having seen all that they saw, they said to Moses: This is too much; if God has anything more to say to us, let God tell it to you and you tell it to us.
In Deuteronomy 5:4-5, however, as Moses recounts to the people their experience at the foot of the mountain, he reminds them: "Face to face the Lord spoke to you on the mountain out of the fire -- I stood between the Lord and you at that time to convey the Lord's words to you, for you were afraid of the fire and did not go up the mountain...."
The words of the Ten Commandments follow. Here, the Torah seems to tell us that Moses was already between God and the people before the Commandments were given, and Moses, not God, did the talking.
This lack of clarity resulted in two different rabbinic interpretations. One midrashic tradition teaches that God did, indeed, speak all 10 of the Commandments to the people. Rabbi Yehuda HaLevi incorporates this interpretation into his account of the giving of the laws in "The Kuzari."
According to a second tradition, God spoke only the first two Commandments directly to the people, and Moses conveyed the rest. This midrash is incorporated into Rashi's comment on Exodus 20:1. The second interpretation is based on the fact that only in the first two commandments does God speak in the first person.
The common denominator of all of these renderings is that the people became afraid of God and distanced themselves from God. They experienced the awesome power of the Almighty and feared for their lives. Exodus 20:15 reads: "V'khol ha-am ro'im et ha-kolot;" "All the people saw the sounds [thunder]." Rashi cites a midrash from the Mekhilta that first took note of this anomaly. The implied difficulty is how can one see sounds? Various commentators suggest that God altered the Israelites' powers of perception so they could see the sounds and thus realize the miraculous nature of the spiritual moment they were experiencing. The result, however, was that the people became extremely frightened by the experience, and pulled back from the mountain.
Contrast this with how the modern Jew has pulled back from God. Our generation has not been overwhelmed by the power of God -- we have been "underwhelmed." This is not to say that God's power has diminished. We have created within ourselves an altered state of being that results in our seeing in ourselves power that really is God's. And so, whom do we fear? Other human beings.
We have forgotten how to listen to God's voice, let alone see it. We have forgotten how to find the image of God in another human being.
It is time once again to approach the mountain and to begin the climb up its slopes to get closer to God. We need not be frightened by God's presence. There is great peace and beauty with God, and, like Moses, when we are with God, we are not afraid. By boldly praising God in public and bringing God back into our speech and into our lives, we are put in touch with a power that can fill every moment of existence with great meaning and blessing.
Joel Rembaum is senior rabbi at Temple Beth Am in Los Angeles.